How Israel’s restrictions on aid put Gaza on the brink of famine

How Israel’s restrictions on aid put Gaza on the brink of famine

JERUSALEM — On Saturday, the United States air-dropped 38,000 meals into Gaza — a territory controlled not by a hostile foreign power but by one of its closest allies.

The remarkable scene of American aid bundles floating down to starving Palestinians was the starkest illustration yet of the rift that has grown between the Biden administration and the Israeli government over the Gaza war. For months, Israel has resisted pressure from Washington to allow more humanitarian aid into the enclave, even as it relies on U.S. bombs and diplomatic support to carry out its punishing military campaign there.

Desperation and death surround an aid delivery in northern Gaza

Thursday’s aid convoy tragedy — where more than 100 people were killed and 700 injured in Gaza City, according to Palestinian officials — underscored the desperation of civilians in the strip, which is hurtling toward a famine that humanitarian officials say is largely of Israel’s making. They point to Israel’s limiting of land entry points for aid; an onerous and confusing Israeli inspection process; faulty deconfliction channels between aid groups and Israel’s military; Israeli efforts to undermine the United Nations; and its military’s recent targeting of Gaza police who once protected aid missions.

Israel says it is not limiting the delivery of aid to Gaza and has blamed the U.N. for failing to distribute it to those in need — or worse, diverting aid to Hamas.

But Washington is growing impatient with those arguments.

“We’re going to insist that Israel facilitate more trucks and more routes to get more and more people the help they need,” President Biden said Friday as he announced the aid drops. “No excuses, because the truth is, aid flowing to Gaza is nowhere nearly enough.”

Around 500 trucks entered Gaza each day before the war, a figure that aid agencies have not come close to reaching since the start of the conflict. In February, just 98 trucks per day crossed into Gaza on average, according to the U.N., compared to an average of 170 per day in January. On several days last month, the number of trucks was in the single digits.

Young Israelis block aid to Gaza while IDF soldiers stand and watch

Allegations that Israel is deliberately obstructing the entry of aid into Gaza are at the heart of South Africa’s genocide case against Israel at the International Court of Justice. The court in The Hague has not ruled on the question of genocide, but in late January it ordered Israel to “take immediate and effective measures to enable the provision of urgently needed basic services and humanitarian aid.”

Yet hardly any assistance has reached the north, where some families are surviving on grass and animal feed. At least 15 children have died from malnutrition, according to local health authorities.

“What’s absolutely amazing is how quickly the situation has unfolded, in a place which before has never really encountered hunger,” Philippe Lazzarini, commissioner-general of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the U.N. body for Palestinian refugees, told reporters in Jerusalem on Thursday.

“This is an artificially man-made situation that we can easily reverse if we want to. We know what needs to be done.”

Few crossings, ‘random’ rejections

After the Oct. 7, 2023, attacks on southern Israel, when Hamas-led fighters killed around 1,200 people and took more than 250 hostages, the Israeli military announced a “full siege” of Gaza.

“No electricity, no food, no water, no fuel. Everything is closed. We are fighting human animals and we are acting accordingly,” Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said Oct. 9.

It took two weeks of intense lobbying by the Biden administration, including from the president himself, to convince Israel to allow in some of the trucks lined up on the Egyptian side of the Rafah border crossing — the only entry point to Gaza that is not in Israeli territory.

While Egypt and the Hamas-run Gaza border authority nominally control Rafah, Israel has effectively wielded a military veto over what enters and exits, bombing the crossing on multiple occasions early in the war.

A host of logistical challenges confronted aid providers from the get-go. Rafah was built as a transit point for people, not goods. It is situated in northern Sinai, a sensitive military zone where Egypt continues to limit the presence of U.N. employees, according to a senior U.N. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive subject.

But the operation on the Egyptian side improved significantly over time, the official added. The number of trucks entering Gaza per day scaled up from 20 at first to a high of about 200 per day during a six-day pause in fighting in November.

In December, Israel opened a second border crossing at Kerem Shalom. But there still aren’t enough crossings to handle the volume of aid required, humanitarian organizations say. And the Israeli inspection process remains cumbersome and opaque, with some items rejected on a seemingly “random” basis, said Janti Soeripto, chief executive of Save the Children.

Generators, tent poles and pipes to restore water and sanitation infrastructure are among the items that Israel has prohibited as “dual use” — fearing militants could use them as weapons or to bolster their underground hideouts. But obstetric clamps and wooden boxes containing toys have also been denied, Soeripto said. Sometimes aid organizations are told by Israeli officials their cargo has the green light, only to be turned back at the inspection point.

The Israeli agency charged with handling inspections is working off a 2008 rubric that is out of date and unevenly applied, according to a U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive topic.

U.S. representatives working for Amb. David Satterfield, appointed by Biden in October to head up humanitarian efforts in the region, regularly engage in “intense conversations” with Israeli officials to urge more items to be let in, the official said, but it’s “a challenging environment.”

Aid organizations and the Biden administration lobbied Israel for the reintroduction of commercial cargo to Gaza in the fall, arguing that humanitarian aid alone could not feed Gaza’s population.

Though the first commercial trucks were permitted to cross in December, aid organizations say the number must be scaled up substantially.

The volume of aid reaching Gaza dropped over the past month as Israeli protesters — who argue that humanitarian assistance benefits Hamas — regularly blocked the Kerem Shalom crossing. Israeli police said late last month they were cracking down on protesters. But demonstrators continued to obstruct the crossing as recently as Thursday.

The Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories, the Israeli body charged with overseeing the enclave, regularly says “there is no limit to the amount of humanitarian aid that can enter Gaza.”

COGAT blames the U.N. for delays and logistical failures.

“The idea that Israel ‘isn’t letting aid in’ is simply a lie,” Israeli government spokesman Eylon Levy said Saturday on X. “There is EXCESS CAPACITY at Israel’s crossings for more to enter.”

The senior U.N. official called that argument “disingenuous.”

“You wouldn’t meet one U.N. staff who would say that Israel is effectively facilitating humanitarian assistance,” they said.

COGAT and the Israeli prime minister’s office did not respond to requests for comment.

Israel intends to open an additional crossing into northern Gaza as early as next week, to allow more aid to flow in, said an Israeli official, speaking on the condition of anonymity since they were not authorized to comment publicly.

The move comes after USAID Administrator Samantha Power visited Israel last week to push for action. Israel also agreed to ease customs restrictions so assistance can enter more easily via Jordan and to allow the U.S. airdrops as well as “a forthcoming maritime corridor,” USAID spokeswoman Jessica Jennings said in a readout of Power’s visit.

As difficult as it is to get aid into Gaza, distributing it has become an ever greater challenge.

Roads in southern Gaza are hard to traverse, packed with displaced people and rubble. Fighting is still fierce in parts of central and northern Gaza. Aid organizations widely describe the deconfliction process — securing assurances from Israeli forces that convoys will not be attacked — as broken.

Israeli officials have denied the majority of requests by aid agencies to bring assistance to the north. No UNRWA convoy has reached that part of the enclave since Jan. 23. Some approved missions have come under attack by Israeli forces or seen personnel harassed or detained by Israeli troops, Lazzarini said.

On Feb. 5, the last time UNRWA attempted to send a convoy north, the group said it was hit by Israeli naval forces off the coast. Asked about the incident, the Israeli military said: “During the movement of the convoy on the route, a strike was carried out as part of the IDF’s activity in the area, which was not aimed at the convoy. The incident was examined and conclusions and lessons were drawn accordingly.”

“When you do a deconfliction, and despite the deconfliction, you are still shot at, you think twice before going the next time,” Lazzarini said.

Gaza’s desperate hunger: Families struggle to fend off starvation

Nearly all Gazans face crisis levels of hunger. In the north, where some 300,000 people are estimated to remain, about 16 percent of children under 2 years old were acutely malnourished as of January, the U.N. reported, citing an “unprecedented” rate of decline in nutritional status.

As people have grown hungrier and more desperate, the looting of aid convoys has increased — even in the south, Lazzarini said.

Lately, another threat has emerged: organized criminal gangs. Aid trucks have been vandalized and drivers beaten, Lazzarini said, including by an armed Bedouin group along the southern border. Criminals are looting the aid and profiteers are selling it at exorbitant prices.

Gaza aid delivery hampered by Israeli attacks on police, rising chaos

Unarmed Gaza police officers — civil servants under the Hamas-run government — no longer accompany aid convoys on their journeys after Israeli airstrikes killed as many as nine officers in recent weeks, according to Satterfield, the U.S. envoy.

“With the departure of police escorts, it has been virtually impossible for the U.N. or anyone else … to safely move assistance in Gaza because of criminal gangs,” Satterfield said last month.

The World Food Program suspended deliveries to the north last month, citing insecurity.

The Israel Defense Forces referred all questions to COGAT and to the prime minister’s office. Neither responded to requests for comment.

Aid organizations have explored security workarounds, including convincing some policemen to accompany aid trucks out of uniform.

“The IDF is now expected to get involved in securing the delivery of aid,” the Israeli official said. “I think you’ll see more aid going in to the north.”

The plan was in the works before Thursday’s incident, the official said. The four convoys of aid brought by private trucking firms last week, including the delivery that dissolved into chaos Thursday, were part of that effort.

Israel blamed a crowd crush for many of the deaths. Eyewitnesses said Israeli forces opened fire on them as they converged on the trucks; doctors at hospitals that received the dead and injured said most were brought in with gunshot wounds.

Aid workers argue that the incident underscores the perils of Israel trying to organize aid deliveries rather than relying on the United Nations and other more experienced partners.

“They clearly didn’t plan it well and didn’t know how to react when things went wrong,” the senior U.N. official said.

An ‘adversarial’ relationship

Already strained relations between the U.N. and Israel deteriorated significantly after Israel levied explosive allegations in January that a dozen UNRWA employees were involved in the attacks on Oct. 7.

Lazzarini fired 10 of the 12 employees accused in connection with the attack — the other two were dead — before investigating the Israeli claims. The United Nations’ internal watchdog, the Office of Internal Oversight Services, has launched an investigation.

Sixteen of UNRWA’s donors — including its largest, the United States and Germany — suspended $450 million in funds in the wake of the allegations.

UNRWA and its backers argue that a U.N. agency that employs 30,000 people across the region should not be shut down because of allegations against a tiny fraction of employees, especially at such a critical time for Gaza. The agency received a boost Friday, when the European Union announced it would disburse $54 million to UNRWA, which will help the agency get through at least this month, according to spokeswoman Juliette Touma.

But the damage to UNRWA’s reputation, and to its relationship with Israel, could be permanent.

Israeli officials openly call UNRWA the “international branch” of Hamas. They have also alleged the agency diverts humanitarian aid to the militant group, though the United States has seen no evidence to support those claims, Satterfield said last month.

Israel has suggested other U.N. agencies take over from UNRWA. But aid groups say replacing the agency is impractical in the short or medium term.

“UNRWA was the public service delivery mechanism in Gaza for decades,” said Soeripto of Save the Children. “To just think that we can step in and do all that instead of them, and do it safely and securely … anyone who tells you they can do that is untruthful or highly optimistic.”

Officials in Jerusalem and Washington acknowledge there is no feasible alternative at the moment. Still, Israeli officials have worked to undercut UNRWA’s ability to function, freezing the agency’s bank account and temporarily blocking a shipment of flour destined for Gaza at an Israeli port last month.

Some far-right government ministers, including National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, have called for an end to all humanitarian aid for Gaza. Recent polling by the Israel Democracy Institute indicates that’s not a fringe position: 68 percent of Jewish Israeli respondents said they do not support the transfer of food and medicine to Gaza even by “international bodies that are not linked to Hamas or to UNRWA.”

The relationship between the United Nations and Israel has become “adversarial,” the senior U.N. official said. Inside the United Nations, they added, “there is a view that the Israelis want to see the U.N. fail.”

Israeli leaders are determined to press on with their war against Hamas, despite growing international calls for a cease-fire. Aid organizations say a cessation of hostilities is the only effective way to ease the massive suffering of civilians in Gaza.

But the U.S. has repeatedly vetoed cease-fire resolutions at the U.N. Security Council. And even as the Biden administration steps up its public pressure on Israel to allow more aid into Gaza, it has so far refrained from threatening to withhold military assistance.

Aid groups say the American airdrops will have little impact.

“There’s more chaos on the ground then,” Soeripto said. “You can’t really guarantee who gets [the aid] and who doesn’t.”

Karen DeYoung in Washington and Steve Hendrix and Miriam Berger in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

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